In December, I came across Lesson Coder, a Windows 8 educational app to help teachers record their own lesson observations, and check them against the NSW Quality Teaching Framework. It's a professional development tool for both experienced and trainee teachers, and it made a lot of sense to use on a touch-enabled Windows 8 device.
Over Christmas, I had the chance to catch up with Lucas Moffitt, the developer, to understand why he'd developed it, and what other projects he's got in the pipeline, and he's agreed to let me share the Question and Answer session:
Lucas Moffitt – developing Windows 8 apps to help teachers
Lucas has always been interested in programming, ever since as a Year 4 student a teacher showed him a programming tool he used to build education apps – and ever since then Lucas has been interested in both developing software and education. He went to the University of Newcastle and completed a double degree in teaching and design and technology. Since graduating he's carried on developing software and websites, now as a professional developer. As Lucas put it:
|I've got a real interest in the future of educational technology and using the experience learnt from my teaching course to help with developing apps for teachers and students.|
I think this came from a module in 'teaching and technology' that Lucas took in his last year of the teaching course. He was disappointed to realise that teachers were often having to make do with existing websites and software that had been created for other purposes, and that teachers were then adapting to use in teaching and learning. And that would then lead to gaps in the ways that it could support teachers and students. It was at that point that Lucas saw the opportunity to change the model and actually develop apps specifically for teachers.
His first app was WordFiller - a cloze test generator for interactive whiteboards, where students could drag words from a passage around on the whiteboard to match the text. Teachers can load a passage of text and then remove some words, and then the students would be picking up words and dropping them into the text using the interactivity of the whiteboard.
After realising that many teachers didn't have access to the an interactive whiteboard in their classroom, Lucas moved on to create an interface that worked with Windows Kinect, so that students could use hand-gestures and voice commands to complete the task. It meant that teachers could achieve the same thing with a $200 Kinect device rather than a $4,000 interactive whiteboard.
But if you're developing free software apps for teachers, how do you distribute it? Lucas answer was social media:
|In addition to my personal connections, and other trainee teachers on my course, I was sharing it with teachers across Australia through my Twitter account. I released the software on GitHub as a way to make it freely available – by releasing it on an Open Source licence, it meant that other people could see what I have done, and then either use the software as it is, or improve it.|
After creating it, Lucas learnt that although many teachers will assert that they are tech-savvy, often they lack the confidence or skills to try something completely new that's not quite as simple as downloading an app from an online store.
Lucas also had to learn about new programming languages for modern devices – in his case, C# – to make sure that he could get the software to fit the needs of teachers.
|The big difference was in spotting what teachers needed, and building an app for that, rather than trying to work out workarounds for existing software. Feedback from other teachers on the gaps in existing software was useful.|
The next project for Lucas was to create the Teaching Resource Exchange – a website where teachers could share classroom resources.
I'd noticed that lots of teachers seem to act like hoarders (even myself) – they find great resources and put them away for future use. I felt that I could help other teachers by creating a place where teachers could store their resources, and at the same time share them with other teachers – not just single resources, but lesson plans etc. There are already similar sites that exist in other countries, but I wanted to create something more local to Australia – so that the experience of local teachers could create a more focused set of resources that support our classroom and curriculum.
Of course, after the initial enthusiasm, the challenge I discovered was that teachers will still keep their resources to themselves, unless there's a compelling reason to share. In fact, many teachers seem afraid to share their lesson resources, because they think that their content won't stand up to public scrutiny – afraid that they might find that the stuff they create is shot down by other 'experts'. Sadly, it's easier for them to simply not share. I thought I'd cracked that with Teaching Resource Exchange by allowing for reflection, feedback and an improvement loop for resources.
I've learnt a lot along the way, and so there was no effort wasted. The site still operates and the content that was submitted is still available for all teachers to see and use today.
The first step in building Windows 8 education apps
It was only in the last six weeks that Lucas started to look at Windows 8, and realising the potential of creating touch-enabled apps for teachers. His first step was to buy a Samsung Series 7 slate (it's also my computer currently), and start to play with the possibilities. As he already had knowledge of C# from his earlier work, the additional bits that he had to learn were the XAML skills to be able to create a polished touch app. Of course, deciding to build a Windows 8 app doesn't necessarily mean writing Windows 8 education apps, so I asked why the focus stayed on education:
|Of course, I looked at creating games, but the reality is that there are thousands of games apps out there for mobile devices. Whereas there aren't that many tools out there for teachers. Well, there's plenty of learning apps for a model where every student has a device, and the teacher can install individual apps for each student. But there are significantly less apps that are about helping a teacher do their job more effectively and efficiently using their own personal device.|
Lesson Coder was the first app Lucas released in the Windows Store. It uses the NSW Quality Teaching Framework to help teachers or observers to record and review their own professional practice during a lesson. They can quickly enter data about a lesson and review it later for professional development purposes. It's also a good tool for lesson observers during teaching prac. It was created after Lucas had seen this in classroom practice, where an assessor comes into the classroom with a big binder of paper, and is ticking boxes and assessing in real time and providing feedback. Then, if they want to keep that electronically, they have enter it into a computer, which creates more work still. The goal of Lesson Coder was to reduce the whole process to get the result more quickly, and in a more useful way for both the observer(s) and the teacher.
As soon as he'd announced it on Twitter, another teacher came along asking for a version based on Australian Teacher Professional Standards and so Lucas has now created that too, which will shortly appear in the Windows Store. The standards are used to assess a trainee teacher in order to graduate, so this will be really useful for anybody involved in teacher training - the plan is that an observer or a qualified teacher is able to record the teaching performance of a trainee (or peer-to-peer assessment) and provide detailed feedback against the standards. So if you were the teacher being assessed, you would be able to see how you were rated on each criteria, and importantly to see progress through time. And both apps can create a simple Excel spreadsheet with the results.
What's the next Windows 8 education app?
Lucas is now working on a few other Windows 8 education apps that can take advantage of the touch features of the latest devices. Class Seater is a way to create seating charts for different class groups. The idea came from realising that it was a great use for a touch interface, where it's especially useful for primary schools, where teachers often create and print charts. This way they are able to do it in real time, and move students around, without having to generate a new print out every time. And then he's turning his attention to his first app that will have both a free and paid-for version (all the others so far have been free):
Essay Marker is the big app that I'm working on right now – and it's taking almost all of my free time. It's a tool for teachers who have to create, distribute and mark essay-based assessments. You can create an assignment in the app, share it in Word with students via SkyDrive, and then teachers mark all of the assignments, whilst matching the assignment to the marking scheme, and rubric.
This will be a free app but I'll be able to create it with a limited number assignments, marking groups, and have advertising in it – and will then offer a low cost upgrade to a full version without the limits and adverts.
This is a way for me to help teachers, whilst also getting something back for the time I'm putting in.
Lucas uses Twitter to share his projects, and also to solicit feedback from teachers on his software and what improvements he can make.
Of course, I'm learning that the world of teaching that's taught in a university course is very different from the practical world of teaching. I'm trying to help bridge the gap between what teachers are able to do in the time they have available, by giving them tools that make it easier to integrate new professional practice in an easy way.
It's driven out of frustration – too many teachers I've met have been using technology because they are being forced to, not because they want to. So I'm looking at this saying 'what's the process I can make easier?', and then trying to do it in a way that helps teachers. Of course, I'd love nothing more than somebody giving me buckets of cash to sit down and write apps for teachers to help them – but that's not going to happen today, so until then I'm going to keep writing apps that help teachers, and see if I can find a model that allows me to develop apps that help teachers, and pays me to keep doing it.
At the end of our conversation, Lucas last thought was about what he wanted more of: feedback. He's keen to get quality feedback from somebody who's actually got the chance to use his software in the classroom and through their feedback can help him to improve it.